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In ‘Vernon’s World,’ a Young Photographer Documents the Life of a Homeless Teenager

Vernon walks down 9th Street to visit a friend in a park. He roams shirtless whenever it’s warm enough to allow it.

A concrete floor is not a comfortable place to sleep, and when Vernon wakes up he complains of back pains. Without a blanket or pillow, Vernon shivers on even warm nights.

Renee Hoffman, left, and her daughter Krissy, speak with Vernon from their front door. Renee is one of the several women that Vernon considers a surrogate mother, and he calls Krissy ‘sis’.

A gazing ball shows Vernon's bouncing reflection next to Renee Hoffman's front door. Vernon visits Hoffman nearly every day, and she worries when he doesn’t.

Vernon and Hoffman have become close in the last few months. He lived at her house for a short period of time, and he says another of Hoffman's daughters, Kelsey, is the love of his life. Kelsey lives several towns away and rarely visits.

The first thing Vernon does when he wakes up is go to McDonald’s to use their WiFi on his phone because he can’t afford cell phone service. He can usually expect people to offer him a breakfast sandwich and coffee. Throughout the day, McDonald’s is Vernon’s home base and he visits regularly. At night, he will visit again to fill his soda cup before heading back to the restroom stall to sleep.

At a friend’s house, Vernon plays games on his phone as others socialize. His phone is not connected to a service plan, so he uses it as his personal computer for chatting when he can connect to the Internet.

Friends of Vernon’s continue their conversations outside McDonald’s, ignoring his erratic dancing behind them.

Vernon sleeps next to a puddle of spilt soda from the night before.

Vernon says his father is keeping his birth certificate from him, which prevents him from getting a job. Because he was born in West Virginia, he says he needs to save $12 so he can have a new one sent to him. According to Vernon, this is the one barrier he has that keeps him from stabilizing his life.

Vernon sorts through his belongings in his backpack after waking up in the bathroom.

Vernon watches TV at the foot of a friends bed before trying to go to sleep. Sometimes he is able to sleep in a house for a night when someone realizes that he has been sleeping in a park bathroom.

Vernon helps bandage the foot of Dee Capo, another woman he refers to as 'mom'.

Vernon lights a cigarette at one of his 'mom's, Dee Capo's house.

Vernon sleeps next to a puddle of spilt soda from the night before.

Although there are no shelters for people like Vernon in Trenton, several churches have clothing drives and donate items. Vernon changes into a new wardrobe in the McDonald's bathroom.


Text by Gwen McClure / Photos by Sam Wilson

Unaccustomed to the cold, hard floor in his spot next to the door of the public bathrooms in Trenton, Missouri, Sam Wilson, 22, slept badly. In a stall next to him, Vernon Foster, 18, didn’t have the same trouble. By the time Foster woke, Wilson had been in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness for hours, apologizing to the morning walkers as they filtered through the bathroom, surprised to see two young boys asleep on the floor.

“It’s totally weird for people to open up the bathroom door and see two kids sleeping in the stall, and one of them with a camera,” said Wilson.

But the uncomfortable conditions and noise meant that he was awake to capture some of the shots seen in “Vernon’s World,” Wilson’s contribution to the 65th annual Missouri Photo Workshop, which aims to capture the story of small town Missouri.

It wasn’t just the lack of sleep that gave him the opportunity to shoot. It was primarily the trust that he earned from Foster—and gained in Foster—that allowed him that access. For Wilson to be able to capture the story in a way that he felt was fair and true, that trust had to be mutual. He need Foster’s confidence for full access, but just as importantly, he needed to believe that Foster was telling and showing him the truth and that he, in turn, could do the same for his audience.



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